In Minneapolis, two men who fell in love 38 years ago will finally get married this week in front of their rabbi at City Hall. In Duluth, two men with three children will wed in an early morning ceremony on the shore of Lake Superior. Two North Dakota women who fled their home state last year and resettled in Minnesota are busy planning their nuptials this fall.

Minnesota is on the verge of a remarkable new chapter in its history Thursday, as it becomes only the 13th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

In courthouses and city halls around the state, wedding preparations are underway as the first gays and lesbians prepare for their new and uncharted lives as legally married couples.

"There are so many layers of pain we were having to push through and all of the sudden here we are," said Phil Oxman, a Minneapolis psychologist who will marry his partner of nearly 40 years at Minneapolis City Hall sometime after midnight on Thursday. "Suddenly, we are all fully functioning members of this state."

"It's just a wonderful celebration, and we want to be part of it," said his partner, Harvey Zuckman.

Just a few years ago, most gays and lesbians did not dare to imagine that marriage might soon be a reality in Minnesota. Last year, many were fighting just to stop having same-sex weddings banned in the state Constitution.

Now many are scrambling to find new ways to make ancient wedding ceremony traditions their own.

But as they prepare for their happy day, gay and lesbian couples face an unsettling reality: Their marriages — and the myriad legal rights and protections that come with them — will be meaningless in 37 other states.

Even at home, acceptance falls well short of universal. Minnesotans remain deeply and often bitterly divided over an issue that, for many, crosses religious and moral boundaries.

Tia Johnson, 30, a mother of three from Clara City, represents those views. "We simply cannot deny that men and women were born to be biologically distinct, and their roles are so very precious as moms and dads," Johnson said. "I'm also concerned about marriage continuing to be redefined in Minnesota's future. … I'm concerned about expressing these viewpoints without being verbally thrashed or legally silenced."

'A seat at the banquet'

Scars from the long marriage equality battle on the ballot and at the State Capitol, along with the uncertain marital landscape nationally, have gay and lesbian couples heading down the aisle amid a complex swirl of emotions.

Duluthians Tim Robinson and his partner, Gary Lundstrom, will wed at 7 a.m. Thursday, in the Duluth Rose Garden overlooking Lake Superior.

"All these years, we have been used to two words: tolerance and acceptance," said Lundstrom, 55, an artist. "We are told to be grateful. But that's like only accepting crumbs off the table. Now we have a seat at the banquet."

Robinson, 50, a social worker, said they have never been crusaders. Both grew up in deeply religious Christian families, with some members who still won't embrace their relationship.

"We just tried to live our lives. We haven't forced things on our family that might make them uncomfortable," Robinson said."But the only way people are going to see same-sex couples is by seeing same-sex couples. It's not radical. It's just something everybody else has taken for granted."

Midnight party in Duluth

Duluth has had its own struggles with the marriage issue.

In the early 2000s, the City Council passed a resolution welcoming a local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pride festival. The mayor at the time took the unusual step of vetoing the measure, which enraged many in the community.

On Thursday, John Goldfine, vice chairman of ZMC Hotels in Duluth, will host a free midnight wedding party there when same-sex marriage becomes legal. Goldfine, who was ordained decades ago "during the hippie days," is offering to officiate at same-sex weddings on Thursday.

He said he wants the celebration to be a place for people who can't afford their own weddings or for people whose families do not approve. For that night, he said, "We are your family."

The hotelier was not always so welcoming. Five years ago, his daughter told him she was a lesbian. Since then, he has become passionate on the topic of marriage equality and is eager to make amends for past failings.

"We are all coming together to celebrate a new era," he said.

A mayor's role

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he gave little thought to marriage equality until about two years ago, when GOP legislative leaders pushed voters to take a statutory ban on same-sex marriage to the highest legal level: an amendment to the state Constitution.

"Like a lot of folks, support for marriage equality was an evolution," said Ness, who will officiate at the marriage of Robinson and Lundstrom on Thursday. Once the debate over the amendment began, "it became clear that we had significant inequality in our state laws that needed to be corrected."

Some cities and local governments are doing their best to look the other way.

In Bemidji, where voters showed strong support for banning same-sex marriage, Mayor Rita Albrecht said that she is unaware of any same-sex marriage plans for Thursday at any Bemidji public buildings and that she has no plans to officiate at any such ceremonies.

Ely Mayor Ross Petersen said the date's significance "hadn't even crossed my mind. I'm scheduled to go fishing that day."

Crookston open for customers

In Polk County, where 31,000 residents are spread across nearly 2,000 acres along the North Dakota border, plans are taking shape for a handful of midnight marriages at Crookston, the county seat. According to U.S. census data, same-sex couples make up fewer than 0.1 percent of all households in the county.

Nevertheless, Polk County Recorder Michelle Cote has taken the unusual step of becoming an officiant, since the court administration no longer does it.

"I thought it was a service we should provide," Cote said.

She would not share her views on same-sex marriage and said it is not something she and her colleagues discuss.

"I am very customer-service oriented and thought it was a nice idea," she said.

Northwestern Minnesota remains deeply divided on the issue. Voters there showed some of the strongest and most reliable opposition to same-sex marriage over the last two years.

Crossing the N.D. border

For many gay and lesbian couples there, their historic walk down the aisle will not erase years of disapproval from parents and family members who still oppose same-sex marriage.

"I haven't spoken with my mom in over a year now because she is definitely not on board with my sexual orientation," said Katie Craig, 24, who lives in Grand Forks, N.D., and who will wed Thursday in Crookston. "My family likes to ignore the fact I am gay. In my family, it is not something they want to talk about."

Craig and her partner, Mary Gonzalez, 23, will cross the border to marry even though North Dakota won't recognize the union when they return. They met several years ago through a Star Wars fan website and have been together ever since.

"We want what everybody wants," Gonzalez said. "They are in a loving, committed relationship and want that recognized. We have decided to go for it, no matter what."

Minnesota's momentum on same-sex marriage has already lured a few people into the state.

Mara Morken, a freelance Web designer and stay-at-home mother, and her partner moved from Fargo, N.D., across the border to Moorhead a year or so ago.

"North Dakota has no protections [of] any sort," said Morken, who has two young children with her partner, whom she plans to marry in September. "Even though the taxes are higher, it made sense to move over. We wanted to take advantage of all the positive things that Minnesota is doing."

'Part of the community'

Amy Theis and Nichol DePoint have been together four years. They live in south Minneapolis, have a 1-year-old daughter and have parents who are excited about their Aug. 8 wedding.

"It's still sinking in. We can get married," said Theis, 34, an acupuncturist.

"It was something I never thought we would have, and now to have that security and ability to express that love is amazing," said DePoint, 35, a restaurant manager. "We are now a part of the community and the community is a part of us and our lives."

The ring's the thing

Now something that has long marked straight unions is surfacing for some gay couples: wedding jitters.

Zuckman and Oxman found themselves bickering about ties last week. Zuckman wants matching ties for their wedding day, maybe even identical boutonnieres. Oxman wants complementary ones, bright, made of silk, perhaps purple and blue.

"I imagine two different ties, complementary, like our relationship," Oxman said.

This will only happen once, they say, and they want everything just right.

Oxman wears his father's wedding ring and had an identical one made for Zuckman as a 25th anniversary gift. Each man wears his band on his right ring finger.

In honor of the upcoming ceremony, Oxman briefly considered having the rings cleaned and polished, making them look new and perfect again. After some thought, he decided he preferred the slightly faded look, with the scuff marks and imperfections.

The tarnished rings, he said, symbolize the nicks and scrapes of their nearly four decades together.

On Thursday, shortly after midnight, they will take their vows, and in doing so, make one change in their ring status.

They will finally switch their wedding bands from the right hand to the left.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044